Friday, May 22, 2009

Entrepreneurship and Improv: Two Peas in a Pod

Entrepreneurship is a contact sport and social entrepreneurship is extreme contact sport. The keyword here is contact - its as much about the other as it is about you. Different, for example, from heli-skiing where it is all about you. So last week, when I saw two amazing Improv plays (not stand-up comedy), I remembered that Improv training is great entrepreneurial skills training. Its the way to maneuver the "contact" aspect of the sport. You learn to "act" on your feet while gauging the audience; you learn to create laughter out of adversity to build camaraderie and most important you learn not to take yourself too seriously -for entrepreneurs are sustained by passion and social entrepreneurs by extreme passion (that burdens them with an un-endearing righteousness). Two snippets from the Improvised Shakespeare Company production I saw provide illustrations. At the start of the production the group leader asked for a play title - the answer from the audience was "King Lear Goes to Jail". In laying the foundation for the story, there was wordplay around "retire" - as in retire from job or retire for the night. The audience laughed so the players built on the theme to the point of introducing a new character called Webster (as in dictionary) and Webster was a huge hit. Another obvious aspect of Improv is that players switch roles frequently - in this case each player had multiple roles which were conveyed by getting into character with diction, body language, gestures- convincingly enough that the audience couldn't caricature the player into any one human trait (clever, conniving, fool etc).

Just for fun or just for work, this summer, do something for yourself: sign up for an Improv class and watch your entrepreneurial skills improve. That's because we learn by doing and Improv theatre provides a "safe" place to do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Top 3 Entrepreneur Strengths that Become Weaknesses for Scaling

From Idea to IPO- that was the entrepreneurship mantra of the last decade. Get in quick and get out even quicker - with a pile of money - to invest in your next big idea. Scaling comes after IPO, sometimes with new leadership. This business path isn't applicable to social entrepreneurship where the mission is sustainable growth with no clear exit strategy (at least at the start). So one would think that current Wall Street woes would help the cause of the social entrepreneur - maybe divert some capital into long term investments like infrastructure, education, health-care, poverty alleviation - the things that worry the social entrepreneur. While capital is certainly an issue, it is not just about capital. The impact metric of social entrepreneurship is scale. You educate 100 kids, you educate a 100 kids. You educate 1,000,000 kids you change the world. That is the "impact metric". Scale is the equivalent of the IPO for social businesses. But entrepreneurial characteristics, the very ones that allow a company to form (for profit or not-for-profit) may become barriers to scaling or taking the company to the next level. With the fall in the number of recent IPOs there is a timely bit of advice in HBR from Anthony Tjan "Why Do Most Entrepreneurs Fail to Scale?" that I think is especially relevant for social entrepreneurs. The top three double-edged traits to watch for are:
1. Persistence. Willingness to persevere despite obstacles has created many great innovations and is often the foundation for successful start-ups. However, persistence can easily turn to stubbornness. Stick with your ideas when you know you are right and have supporting evidence. Be willing to abandon your position when signs show you need help or redirection.
2. Control. Early phases of company growth require the founder be involved in all operations. But as the company scales, that maniacal attention to detail can be counterproductive. Recognize the importance of delegation and let go when it's time.
3. Loyalty. Close ties inevitably form when people work together day in and out, and loyal relationships can yield great results. However, you need to know when loyalty is clouding your judgment in assessing capabilities and skill gaps.

To this list I would add collaboration - the equivalent of "mergers and acquisitions"- a common growth strategy to take a company to the next level. What do you think? Will the economic downturn be a blessing in the long run? Will social entrepreneurship no longer need the social and just become entrepreneurship?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Technology Solution for Hunger: Akshaya Patra

Studies report more undernourished children in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. "Give me fish and you feed me for a day; teach me how to fish and you feed me for life" is the mantra for education providers and in recent years, Internet and computer technologies have done much to improve education across the world. But how well do I learn if my stomach is empty? As in the US, the Indian government provides funds for school lunches but unlike the US, those funds are inadequate as well as ineffective. Technology has no immediate answer for hunger; or so I thought till I heard about Akshay Patra and their school lunch program. The Akshaya Patra Foundation has applied technology for efficient meal production by automating large scale kitchens and their meal delivery system involves innovative logistics using custom designed vehicles to transport food from the kitchens to schools according to a strict schedule with optimal storage and minimal spillage. Hence, they have quickly scaled to feeding over one million children every day from a start of 1500 in just a few years. This technology (kitchen video at has resulted in improved attendance and education according to an AC Nielsen survey. What distinguishes Akshaya Patra from other midday meal programs is that the entire food production and delivery system is intelligently designed and engineered to maximize operational and cost efficiency, while adhering to international standards of hygiene and quality. This makes the government funds they get for raw food-grains go much further and cuts out the middle man. Obama has recognised their unique approach: "Your example of using advanced technologies in central kitchens to reach children in 5,700 schools is an imaginative approach that has the potential to serve as a model for other countries." Additionally, they have been able to extend their approach to rural areas where transportation is more expensive and infrastructure minimal, by using smaller kitchens thus providing employment to women who cook meals. Catch the people of Akshaya Patra at Tiecon 2009 in San Jose and be part of the solution.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How to Market a Movement - 7 lessons

Let's face it. Social entrepreneurship requires marketing just like any other new idea. And suffering as it does from being neither charity nor business, its business model ires investors and philanthropists alike. But when the Internet started, there was no clear business model either, so I remain undaunted. What makes people flock to new ideas? I think its all in the buzz, the art of creating a movement that people want to be a part of. So I went to hear the buzz-meister Geno Church (of WOMMIE, EFFIE and ADDY awards fame) of Brains on Fire ( at the NewComm Forum 2009. His specialty is creating a Word of Mouth (WOM) movement using "brand ambassadors". His brand ambassadors are not highly paid celebrities, but unknown people who are not paid. They build a movement because they want to, and so it grows. His 7 key factors are:
1. WOM marketing is built on passion - find people to be brand ambassadors who are passionate about the cause
2. Have inspirational leadership
3. Empower people with knowledge - provide hard data to ambassadors for their use
4. Encourage ownership
5. Make advocates/members feel like rock-stars
6. Create supportive communities that live on-line and off-line - bring people together 5x a yr
7. Move the Media - practice random acts of advocacy
Rage Against the Haze (South Carolina's youth led anti-tobacco movement) started with just $800K in funding which was used to train the ambassadors - called viralmentalists. The movement consisted of kids talking to other kids about smoking as a choice. In the end he says, the power lies in supporting a cause, enabling an experience and telling a story. Now if we can translate the lessons to creating a buzz around the field of social entrepreneurship!